Monday, 29 August 2011


"glycerine is... possibly the best fuel in the world. It isn’t toxic; it is water soluble; and it’s nearly impossible to ignite glycerine under normal conditions."

This is the claim made by Paul Day founder and Chief Executive of UK company Aquafuel. His company has succeeded in making a diesel engine run on glycerine (a bi product of biodiesel production) with much lower toxic emissions than an engine running on standard diesel fuel. On the face of it this is a useful process to utilise a product for which is there is little current demand. According to The Chemical Engineer magazine for every tonne of biodiesel produced, 100-110 kg of glycerine is obtained as a side product. The world supply of glycerine in 2008 was 3.2m t and the demand just 0.9m t.

It seems odd that anyone would try and run an engine on glycerine but this mad punt seems to have hit the jackpot. Where this story gets really interesting is if you decide that glycerine is better than bio diesel and, rather than try to produce biodiesel, focus on production of glycerine. It turns out that there is a strain of algae called dunaliella salina which grows in salt water and fills its body with glycerine to counteract the osmotic pressure of the salt. At high salt concentrations the amount of glycerine in the algae can be as high as 80%. Harvest the algae, extract the glycerine and there is the fuel of the future.

The algae can grow in the evaporation ponds used by the salt-making industry and there is no conflict with food production or land use. Aquafuel believes that places like Namibia could support a large industry with all the production powered by CHP units running on the glycerine and taken to market on ships powered by glycerine. This would appear to be a clean and sustainable fuel source.

I will be watching Aquafuel with interest over the years ahead and hope that governments drive up the taxes on fossil fuels to ensure that businesses such as Aquafuel are commercially viable.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Politics of Denial

According to a US report from the Obama Administration:

‘A family that purchases a new vehicle in 2025 will save $8,200 in fuel costs compared with a similar vehicle in 2010.’

The report titled, White House Driving Efficiency: Cutting Costs for Families at the Pump and Slashing Dependence on Oil outlines the Administration’s national vehicle program, increasing fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light-duty trucks by Model Year 2025. For the United States this is a big improvement, but it should be seen in context. These are figures that can be achieved now in 2011 with current technology, if there is a will. The challenge is two-fold; persuading the car makers to adjust the range of the models they offer and the willingness of drivers to sign up for the more efficient models.

The report is attempting to sell the changes using the argument that it will cost less. For an immediate change in standards, effective this year, that might be so, but not in the timescale of 2025. Oil prices are set to climb; families should be buying more efficient cars to avoid the big price rises to come. It is disingenuous to spin these improved standards as savings when in reality fuel bills will be considerable higher in 2025. Is it the American drivers who are so dumb that they cannot be trusted with the facts? Or, is it that US politicians have a very low opinion of their electorate? Either way it is a sign that US political wrangling is divorced from reality.

The Whitehouse statement is an attempt at spinning necessary change as a denial that fundamental change is needed, implying that US drivers can carry on as before ― and will actually save money. In such a political climate, progress is made at a snail’s pace.

I recently sold my 12-year old Audi estate which would consistently deliver 55 miles to each gallon. Admittedly this refers to UK galloon so does not meet the US standards for 2025 but as an old European banger it gets close.

There is much to admire about the United States but it seems at the moment to be stuck on a political rut of denial, believing that the US high consumption can go on indefinitely with only marginal changes.

The 2025 vehicle efficiency standards are to be welcomed but are too little, too late.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

My Nissan Leaf

My electric car is a Nissan Leaf, one of about 400 sold in Britain since its launch earlier this year. I put my name down when Nissan first started to register expressions of interest and mine was one of the first to be delivered. We have driven about 2,500 trouble-free miles so far. It is a reliable, very quiet and I have to say rather dull family car. It is perfect for most of regular transport; my wife uses it for her commute (about 17 miles each way); I use it for my journey when I teach at Henley Business School (round trip of 32 miles). I take my children to their various activities, if we need to shop outside the village or off to see grandma in Oxford (55 mile round trip). These are all well within the range even with a very heavy right foot – the car has a respectable turn of speed and good acceleration, but if you use it do not expect to get anywhere near the claimed range of 100 miles. Flat out it will pull 90 mph and manage one motorway junction and back before the battery gives out. It is madness to compare an electric car with a conventional car (listen up Jeremy Clarkson). An electric car fits the niche of local transportation rather well; it is not designed for, and is not suitable for, long journeys.

We plan to keep the battery in tiptop shape so we seldom charge it beyond 80% using cheap night-time electricity ―unless we know we have a long journey coming up ― and do not use rapid charge. It is simpler and takes less time to plug it in each night than filling with petrol once a week. Our credit card bills are noticeable less.

Top Gear gave the car the sort of treatment you would expect; they ensured that the story had all the interesting angles, silent running of course and cheap to operate but also stranded after running out of charge. You have to be quite an idiot to get caught like this but then the presenters on the programme like to fit this description. It makes an entertaining story and good TV but does not provide a useful analysis – Top Gear is high octane entertainment not a consumer affairs programme.

My electric car fits my need perfectly. Whether the car is green or not is a different question. Using the current electricity grid, it is not a very green option but it is worth introducing the technology concurrently with driving forward decarbonising the electric supply. The greenest solution is of course to alter city infrastructure and support lifestyles that do not need the car. I suspect that by the time the government grant programme (£43 million at £5,000 a time to the first 8,600 electric cars bought) runs out in March next year the government will be able to pocket a healthy surplus. The government should thank Top Gear for obscuring the benefits of electric cars and ensuring that the grants are not taken up in full.